Where Things Come Back

John Corey Whaley

About the Author:
John Corey Whaley (born January 19, 1984) is an American author of contemporary realistic novels for young adults. His debut, Where Things Come Back, was published by Atheneum Books in 2011 and Whaley won the Printz Award from the American Library Association in 2012, recognizing it as the year's "best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit."  In 2011 the National Book Foundation named him a 5 under 35 honoree. His second novel, Noggin, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter's senior year of high school, everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town vanishes. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

As Cullen navigates a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young, disillusioned missionary in Africa searches for meaning wherever he can find it. Through masterful plotting, these two stories are brought face-to-face in a surprising and harrowing climax that is tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, and above all, hope.  (From the publisher)

Discussion Questions:

  • The Book of Enoch, Gabriel, and the Fallen Angels are themes that tie together many of the main characters in complex ways. How do you view and interpret this element of the book as it relates to specific characters’ lives, to the meaning of religion, and to the intelligence and potential of humankind?
  • Cabot Searcy takes on a mission he believes was Benton’s idea. Why do you think Cabot becomes so obsessed with the Book of Enoch? Was he crazy? A religious zealot? Or was he simply a misguided soul looking for his own second chance?
  • Over the course of the novel, Cullen exhibits cynicism, hope, idealism, and sometimes despair. Is he acting out the stages of grief over his missing brother, or is he simply a typical, unhappy teenager trying to figure out his life? Think of the other missing brothers and sons in the novel (Oslo, Lucas's brother, Benton Sage)—what is the significance of these characters’ stories? How do they relate to the themes of desperation and second chances that are explored in the story?
  • Cullen has a very deep and loving connection with his brother, Gabriel. In what ways do Cullen and Gabriel appear to be a typical pair of teenage brothers? In what ways does their relationship strike you as unique or special?
  • Lily, Arkansas, is a town where things come back—both in a positive and negative sense. Discuss both sides of this theme and the implications for the town of Lily. Do you think that Cullen Witter will end up staying in Lily?
  • The author calls Where Things Come Back a book about second chances. What are some of the second chances that characters get in this novel? Specifically consider John Barling and Benton Sage in addition to the main characters. Are they always successful? Do things always turn out as they hope?
  • What is the significance of the Lazarus woodpecker—the bird that caused such excitement in the town of Lily, but which never actually existed there? How can the Lazarus be interpreted symbolically?
  • The author describes many different kinds of love in this story: parental love, fraternal love, romantic love, and love for God. What does the novel say about each?
  • Consider the somewhat secondary female cast of Where Things Come Back—Ada Taylor, Alma Ember, and others—and their influence on the male characters of the story.
  • Cullen and Gabriel both find comfort in music throughout the novel. What is the significance of the various lyrics quoted within Cullen’s narrative, and how do they relate to the scenes in which they are used?
  • Consider the format of the novel and the movement of time: how we alternate between Cullen, Benton, and Cabot’s stories, and between first and third person narrators, until the story lines converge at the very end. How did the author's approach to time affect your reading and comprehension of the novel? How did you anticipate that the various narrative threads would intersect or be resolved?
  • Discuss the quirks of Cullen’s voice—for example, his lists, his fantasies, his third-person phrasing. How did Cullen’s voice influence your view of his story? How does it help us understand his mindset as the narrator?
  • Cullen keeps a running list of titles for books that he could write in the future. Consider your own life, both important events and inconsequential moments, like Cullen does. What are some titles that would fit your personal story?
  • Where Things Come Back is Cullen's final title idea and becomes the title of this novel. What is the significance of this title being the final line of the book? What does it imply about what happens at the end of the novel?

(Questions provided by the publisher)